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Steve Hackett - Spectral Mornings CD (album) cover


Steve Hackett


Eclectic Prog

4.14 | 856 ratings

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5 stars It seems a little odd to me that, in a career packed with albums full of weird twists and turns, the best Hackett solo album would be a fairly conservative one, but I don't really mind. Truth be told, this is still a moderately diverse album (this is much closer to Touch than to the pure prog rock of Voyage), but the biggest thing this album has that Touch didn't is coherence, and this goes a long way in making this an enjoyable listen. The album is bookended by tracks that showcase Hackett's strengths as a guitarist; each side has a slow, peaceful instrumental with a strong Asian flavor; each side features a lengthy, guitar-heavy instrumental filled with menace. Add in that a lot of the material can be considered among the best work that Hackett ever did (and that became staples of his live shows), and the case for calling this his best album really isn't that hard to make.

The opening "Every Day" is definitely one of my five or so favorite Hackett tracks, which is made all the more interesting by the fact that I'm not all that wild about the whole first half of it. It's not bad, just kinda pedestrian, though I guess the "Every day! Every day! Every day! ..." bit is notable. But once the vocals disappear for good, holy cow. The guitar dances along to the main song portion, as if getting in some warmup laps, and once the guitar completely takes over, it's pure heaven. Every serious Hackett fan knows the guitar part in the last three minutes practically by heart, but if you're a Genesis fan who hasn't gotten around to Hackett solo yet, let me stress this: the guitar part in the second half of "Every Day" obliterates every great guitar part Hackett had recorded to that point, including the "Firth of Fifth" solo. It's memorable, it's cathartic, it's full of ecstatic climaxes, it's carefully constructed and minimalistic, and in short it consolidates and expands on every positive aspect that Hackett had yet demonstrated. Go hear this track now if you haven't heard it yet.

And yet, for all that, it still pales to the greatness that is the closing title track. Whereas the guitar part in "Every Day" had some elements of speedy exhiliration to it, the exhiliration created by this track comes from a small set of perfectly written guitar lines, played slowly and over and over, working with a great supporting keyboard part (with a breakdown in the middle where the slow keyboard chordings dominate and Steve's guitar parts both carry the melody and almost turn into ambient music). It's on the short list of the most beautiful pieces in my collection of rock music, and it's a piece I can listen to over and over again without getting remotely bored with it. It's also my favorite piece to use to close out mix CDs; I've made only a few mixes in my life, but "Spectral Mornings" has closed out three of them, and it always seems like an appropriate ending.

The rest of the album is really good, too. The first side's Asian-flavored instrumental, "The Red Flower of Tachai Blooms Everywhere," instantly makes me feel like I'm in a Japanese garden, and it's a really lovely use of two minutes, especially because of Steve's use of a koto. "Lost Time in Cordoba," as suggested by its title, is quite Spanish-tinged, but it has a similar atmosphere (if a little more mournful) to and is every bit as enjoyable as its counterpart (I quite like the way the Spanish guitar parts mix in with the bits of flute). Among the two menacing instrumental parts, one of them technically isn't a pure instrumental; "Tigermoth" starts off with four minutes of hell (in a good way), with great guitar tones and big keyboard sounds and textures that sound an awful lot like some of the things Andy Summers would pull out with The Police in the next couple of years, but then it inexplicably turns into a gentle ballad with a memorable vocal melody and silly lyrics. "Clocks - The Angel of Mons," however, doesn't let up its intensity; the "verses" are driven forward by a nagging clock rhythm under some ominous synths, while the "chorus" features an ominous and memorable riff played mainly by Steve. I'm not thrilled with the drum solo at the end, but at the same time it feels like the logical conclusion to the track, and it's really brief, so I don't especially mind it. Also, who had the goofy idea to release an edited version of this as a single? It was 1979!!!

The remaining two tracks do a nice job of rounding out the album. "The Virgin and the Gypsy" is kind of a callback to the more mystical aspects of Voyage (think "Hands of the Priestess"), but somehow warmer and more inviting. Peter Hicks gets in his best vocal performance of the album, with lovely backing harmonies from Hackett, and John Hackett's flute steals the show just as it did so often on the debut. And finally, "The Ballad of the Decomposing Man" is the album's brief excursion into goofy levity, smooshing jazzy bits in with vaguely Caribbean music and featuring Steve on his first instrument: the harmonica. Prog purists will, of course, feel irritated by having this track in an otherwise rather straightlaced stretch of music, but things like this are just par for the course with Steve, and I'm quite happy that it's here.

In the end, even if Steve slightly repeats himself (a cynic could see "Clocks" and "Tigermoth" as too similar, or "Red Flower" and "Cordoba" as too similar, though I wouldn't agree), this album is ultimately the best demonstration of Steve's strengths as a composer, as an arranger and as a guitarist, and thus I give it the highest mark among his albums. If you're interested in getting into solo Steve, start here.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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